Observation 1: Anna-Marie McLemore can write. I mean, seriously write. Not perhaps Catherynne Valente quality of writing, yet, but she’s a fair bit younger and will doubtless grow into her craft. She’s already getting short-listed for prizes, and will doubtless be winning them in due course.
Observation 2: When the Moon was Ours is marketed as “magic realism”. Yes, it is fantasy, and McLemore is from a Mexican-American family. She doesn’t write in Spanish, but she does write fantasy that has its roots in Latin-American culture. Specifically the story uses the legend of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, as part of its background.
Personally I found the fantastical elements one of the weaker parts of the book. I could see that there was a folk tradition of magic being used, but some of the things that happened seemed a little too bizarre and convenient for the plot. Maybe that’s because I’m not used to those sorts of legends.
Observation 3: The plot may annoy you, but stick with it. Much of what happens in the book is based on the time-honored trope of misunderstanding. It relies heavily on the sort of misunderstanding that involves person A not telling person B something because they fear B will be hugely upset by it, when in fact it is just what B wants and needs to hear. B then finds out and is furious with A for lying. It is all very soap opera.
But it works in the end, because the book is also about things that people really are dishonest about, and possibly with good reason. It is about trans identity. Can you trust other people with the knowledge that you are trans? Can you tell your family, or will they reject you because of it? These are very real questions for trans people, and McLemore needs to explore them.
Along the way there are other issues explored that can also lead to small town gossip. One character is a lesbian, another appears to have a learning disability. There is a teenage pregnancy that everyone knows about but no one talks about. A central character, Aracely, is a witch who makes a living curing people of broken hearts, which leads to plenty of sharp observation on the foolishness of human relationships.
Observation 4: McLemore knows her trans. And indeed so she should, as she’s married to a trans guy who, it appears from the Author’s Note, she has known since her teens and helped through transition. There is much autobiographical in this book, it seems.
The book certainly taught me something. Samir, the trans boy in the story, is Pakistani. There, and in Afghanistan, there is a tradition called Bacha posh (“dressed as a boy”) by which families with no boy children may raise one as a boy. Without further research I don’t want to comment too much on this. Fairly naturally, many cis girls who go through this will be unwilling to let go of male privilege, but it also seems like a potential ray of hope for trans boys. Certainly it is for Samir.
There are some sharp observations on the nature of trans life too, but little sign of cis gaze. McLemore is not obsessed with transition the way so many cis writers are. There are some bad people in the book who attempt to blackmail Samir and his friends, but that’s about as bad as it gets. The book is far more about people being honest with each other than it is about transition drama.
Observation 5: I haven’t told you anything about the plot yet. Do I need to? Probably.
There is this old, derelict water tower in the town. The townsfolk decide to demolish it, which they have to do carefully because it is full of water. When it comes down, a teenage girl comes out with the water. Samir befriends her. But are either of them safe in town? They are both outsiders, and obvious victims for the red-haired, witchy Bonner Sisters.
Oh, and the girl, Miel, grows roses out of her wrist. I don’t know why. I’m guessing that it is another Mexican folk tale, but I haven’t been able to find it. What I have found it lots of sites about having a rose tattooed on your wrist, and that can’t have come out of nothing.
Conclusion: I loved this book, despite the fact that I wanted to slap the characters around every so often and tell them not to be so silly. I have been waiting for a really good SF&F YA book with trans characters in it for some time. Alison Goodman did a decent job with Eon, but this is another thing entirely. Here’s hoping that they are like London buses and whole bunch of them now come along together.
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